I have had an emotionally exhausting year to this point. Life always has it’s highs and lows or ebbs and flows. But the ups and downs of 2016 for us have not been slight, they have been extreme.
For instance, there’s a lot of anxiety when you have one car give you trouble and die. We’ve had two cars massively inconvenience us this way. For a month we were down to one five-seater car to transport our seven-member family. That’s stressful.
We have been given two cars in tip top shape since then. Not one… Two. Babysitters and a date night are a huge blessing. Two cars... that’s unheard of.
When you have five kids, it might be exciting to get guinea pig. God surprised us with our sixth child. That’s overwhelming.
It’s a relief to get away for a vacation with just my wife. We received an almost-free trip to Hawaii. That’s exhilarating.
We went to Six Flags when Betsy was pregnant before and then remembered she can’t get on a roller coaster. That’s frustrating. Three days before flying to Kuaui, due to some complications with Betsy’s pregnancy, she couldn’t get on a plane. That’s devastating.
God provided a rental house for us last year well under market value. It’s amazing. We found out last week we need to find another place to live. That’s disappointing.
Those are just some of the things that have been happening in our lives in recent months. God has been extraordinarily gracious and generous to us. I’m not complaining. Not now anyway. I’ve done my fair share along the way, but I’m at peace for the moment. There’s no question about it. We’ve been richly blessed. But internal swings this year have revealed a lingering lack of emotional maturity on my part. I took part in a training this year which included an assessment emotional intelligence, or what’s known in the business world as E.Q. The design of that assessment was to evaluate how emotionally self-aware and self-controlled you are, as well as how capable you are of identifying and empathizing with the emotions of others.
I didn’t score high. But because they were accurate, I got angry about it and complained to Betsy. She agreed with test and because the test was still correct, I got more defensive. I was pretty convinced of the skewed results of the test so I thought the best solution was to retake the test, knowing how they scored things and assuming I could get a better result. I should add in here that Betsy scored quite high. Because the test was right, I needed to win, or at least make it competitive.
Anyway, that is all to say that I literally had my emotional stuntedness quantified for me this year, literally telling me, “James, you’re not emotionally healthy or mature.” The only thing worse than living in close relationship with an emotionally unhealthy person is living with an emotionally unhealthy person who is absolutely convinced they’re emotionally healthy. That is me.
In his mercy and sovereignty, then, God has used the year to take me for an emotional ride that no pregnant woman would be allowed on. Like at Six Flags, I’ve been on the ride while my poor wife watches and has to deal with the aftermath. I handle actual roller coasters better than real life, so Betsy would probably rather go there pregnant.
Throughout this year, a bunch of people in our church have been reading through the whole Bible. The reading plan I follow takes me through all of the Psalms twice. I’ve paid more attention to them than ever because for the first time, I’m understanding David’s inner struggle instead of dismissing it. I’m relating to the emotional swings rather than ridiculing them in my heart. I’ve always felt he was a bit too melodramatic. I realize now that he either isn’t at all, or I am as well.
Whatever the case, I’ve found many of the Psalms to be very timely for me personally and they’ve ministered to me deeply. Instead of rolling the eyes of my heart at David for being too temperamental and tearful; too weepy and whiny; too vexed and too vengeful… I’ve decided to follow his lead. I’ve tried to learn to express my feelings more honestly, not because they are grounded in truth or theological soundness, but precisely because they are not. Expressing them openly and honestly to the Lord, in prayer and in my journal, and even with brothers who are wise and safe, has become a way to process life on paper and out loud in a way that reveals the misalignment of my heart with God’s heart.
The rivers of God’s grace in the gospel gets polluted by my emotional and cognitive self-preoccupation. But processing through, rather than plowing past that inner turmoil in a raw and real way has allowed me to filter out the toxins bound up in my thoughts and feelings. It’s in confessing outwardly those twisted things that swirl inwardly, that I’m faced with my own small thoughts of Jesus and unbelief in His gospel. This exposes the lies I give credibility. This fertilizes the soil out which repentance and faith can grow.
I’ll give you an example from Psalm 13. David starts by questioning God, "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?”
David is not declaring his theology, he’s expressing his emotional state. David is not suggesting that the Sovereign Lord has a lousy memory or is bad with names. He just feels forgotten, alone and abandoned by the Lord. You may add to that a sense of betrayal, because God is the One who has promised him a throne, His divine favor and presence, and His blessing. David has trusted in Yahweh for everything, yet it feels like Yahweh is nowhere to be found. Of course we’ve all felt that way. But too many of us, we men in particular, tend to ignore those feelings, thoughts and questions and forge ahead dutifully.
Yet here is this man after God’s own heart, who gives us permission, not just to feel this way, but to confess that we feel this way. Saying it is not enough in itself to bring healing. But it is a necessary step if healing is to be found. So David is confessing his hurt, loneliness and hopelessness. He goes on:
"Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.”
Here, David is pleading with the Lord to remember him, be mindful of him and even respond to him. He’s feeling surrounded by darkness so much so that if the light of God isn’t going to invade that space for him, he just wants to be dead. David isn’t being hyperbolic. David is being honest. He’s desperate for the light of God to shine forth, in the form of hope, relief, deliverance from his current circumstances, internal rest and peace... something. He’s desperate, not just to know cognitively that God loves him, but to feel personally, that God loves him.
David feels defeated by his enemies, defeated by life, defeated by his own sin and weakness. And he wants to live in the victory God promises us. That promise wasn’t shaping David’s personal and present experience. Again, David is not declaring theology. He’s not saying God is absent, or God’s light isn’t shining, or that God’s promises have been overcome by his enemies. David is saying it feels this way and looks this way to him. And if this is where David lands, then maybe it is just self-pity and whining. But he’s not done. He is processing his emotions and how he’s reacting to life’s disappointments and vulnerabilities. To what end?
"But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
There it is. Most of us, either through teaching or instinct or both, learn to just do what needs to be done. When we're hurting or angry, so many of either lash out or we learn to ignore those feeling and just “do our job.” But, rather than being than "going off" or being the "good soldier" who knows what he is supposed to do and just doing it, David takes the time to engage his emotional angst. Most of us like to maintain a comfortable detachment from our hearts in order to get through life. Our heads and our hearts remain forever disconnected. That’s why too many people can have a sound biblical theology about God without a deep personal relationship with God. David, however, is a man after God’s own heart, at least in part because he is a man connected to his own heart.
David does not express his distorted, confused and chaotic inner turmoil as an end in itself, he is connecting his head to his heart. His trust in the Lord, and his belief that he is loved by God is well founded. God has been exceedingly good to him. David recalls, here, that God is not stingy with him, but generous. Neither is God’s love fleeting or fickle, but it’s persistent and even relentless. As David puts pen to paper to express his emotional state, God involves himself. He meets David there. He reminds him of what’s actually true. And because David’s heart is opened, he receives that reminder, not just in his head, but in his heart. And that reality reconnects David to the heart of God. And what started a couple sentences earlier as a gripe session against God for his absence, results in a worship time of singing to the Lord for his goodness.
Reading the Psalms is potentially helpful. But following this pattern in the Psalms is powerfully healing. David is mentoring us toward emotional health personally and collectively. He’s demonstrating for us what it looks like to connect the theoretical and abstract truths of God and the gospel, to the broken and bleeding parts of our hearts and lives. He’s inviting us, not just to connect to our own hearts, but to connect to God’s heart.
That doesn’t come cheap or easy. It takes work. It takes courage. It takes time. It takes humility. It takes vulnerability. It takes intentionality. But it’s worth it all. Like anything new, it can look, feel and actually be clunky. I’m still early in the process of learning these things, which feels intense and raw at times. But I’m trusting in the steadfast love of the Lord and his faithfulness to me through the process. Ultimately, what David is showing us and what I’m pursuing, is a way to be more human... to be more alive… to be more like Jesus.